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Bilingual Backfire

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Definitely why you should be careful when you're talking about other people, because one day, they're gonna stump you.
Ray: Who you calling a fat shit?
Kayleigh: Oh, you speak the Japanese?

There is something of a rule in basic fiction. If a conversation between Alice and Bob about Carol and a simultaneously held conversation between either Alice or Bob with Carol comprises two different languages, the likelihood of Carol knowing the language of Alice and Bob is directly proportional to the amount of trash Alice and Bob talk about Carol, and vice versa.

When two characters try Hiding Behind the Language Barrier or Insulting from Behind the Language Barrier, talking about someone else who is present in a language the third party supposedly doesn't speak, and the third party turns out to speak that language just fine, it's a Bilingual Backfire.

A two-person variant of this trope is often a form of power play, where Alice insults Bob in a language she assumes he doesn't know (thus attempting to put him off-balance and subordinate to her) — only for him to deliver a fluid comeback in the language or in their common tongue (indicating that he at least understands, if not speaks the other one).

Another variant of this trope is Alice will claim not to understand Bob, only to realize she made the claim in a language Bob is fluent in as Bob obligingly switches to the other language.

Related to Bilingual Bonus and (sometimes) Language Fluency Denial. A Completely Unnecessary Translator may be employed to take advantage of this. Multilingual readers will realize that this is Truth in Television. If the language Bob reveals his fluency in is the only language Alice speaks, that's Language Fluency Reveal. See also Right Behind Me, for when the speaker wrongly depends on distance rather than dialect to leave the target of their remarks in ignorance.

Example subpages:


    open/close all folders 

  • An ad for... something had two women in a café discussing a rather good-looking man at their table in Irish. Turned out he also spoke the language.
  • There are multiple very similar commercials about people, frequently women, unexpectedly knowing Morse code:
    • There was a Swedish Army commercial, shown in Britain on Tarrant on TV, in which two Army recruits sit on a park bench and tap out sexist remarks about a passing girl in Morse code. Guess what — she taps out a snappy comeback on a nearby lamp post. Yes, there are women in the Army too.
    • In a similar commercial, two women sit on a park bench and two male Army recruits are passing by. The insulting thing they tapped out on the bench in Morse code was that one of the guys was going to take one of the women and the other guy was going to take "the spare". The two women then tapped out something to the effect of "I don't think so" and "Get lost", and they walked away as the sound of gunfire played on the soundtrack. Whoops, turns out the two women (quite feminine in their soft pastels and pleated skirts) were in the Army too! (It also aired on an edition of Carrot's Commercial Breakdown.)
      • This may be the famous promo for the British Army, the one which describes "learning things others don't know."
    • A similar Snapple juice ad featured two students trying to communicate by snapping the vacuum seals on their bottle caps, until the teacher interrupts them with a message of her own.
    • Another Morse Code gag shows up in a beer commercial from the early 90s: a man uses an LED light to signal to a woman in a bar that he finds her very attractive. Unfortunately, between her and him is a crusty old sailor who does not take kindly to being hit on...
  • There is a Dutch commercial wherein a family enters an Italian restaurant, and the waiters talk about them quite rudely. Cue the father turning around towards them and saying "Hey, pastaclown, if you're done talking to your girlfriends, perhaps you could spare some time for us?" in fluent Italian.
  • Inverted in an ad for Meteor that had an Irish guy try to chat up a girl in Spain by getting his sister to feed him pick up lines in (bad) Spanish, "I admire your dentistry" and "Are you homeless". Then it turns out the girl is actually English, doesn't understand Spanish and finds the language sexy.
  • A 2012 ad for Honda is set in a dealership. The customers start speaking subtitled Chinese (probably so the salesman won't know how much they want the car). They switch to English to tell him they'll take it. He tells them in Chinese to follow him and they'll start the paperwork.

    Anime & Manga 
  • In episode 2 of Bang Brave Bang Bravern!, some of the German personnel have a quiet word amongst themselves in their native language speculating that Bravern's appearance might be a trick by the Americans, only for Bravern to (loudly) proclaim in German that everyone must be united against the Deathdrives.
  • Inverted in Kaguya-sama: Love Is War: during an exchange party with a sister school from France, one of the guest students gives a Break Them by Talking speech in French to Shirogane as part of a Secret Test of Character. He manages to pass by looking unaffected and making agreeable grunts… except Shirogane is desperately trying to hide that he’s the only one around who doesn’t speak French. Everyone else is amazed by Shirogane’s apparently incredible Nerves of Steel, not realizing that he actually couldn’t understand a word of the whole speech.
  • Hakuya's introduction in Kokuhaku Game is this, complete with physical retaliation.
  • Martian Successor Nadesico: Yurika contacts the U.N. to ask them to lower the Big Barrier, a forcefield to destroy incoming Chulips, but which works both ways. She tells her advisors that she'll just charm them, as they don't speak Japanese. The head of the U.N. then scolds her in Japanese for her presumption. Yurika then responds, in the original Japanese version, in English.

  • Gabriel Iglesias once told a story about when he drove his kid to school late. He tried to drop him off right in front, which he wasn't supposed to do. When the principal came up and told him so, Gabriel tried to get out of it by speaking rapid-fire Spanish at her. She then proceeds to repeat her instructions in perfect (if accented) Spanish, ending it with "Yo no soy pendeja." ("I'm not stupid")
    • Happened again, this time with his mother on the receiving end after Gabriel first brought home his girlfriend (later wife) and she complained to him in Spanish about him bringing a white girl home. His girlfriend then responded in Spanish, since while being very light skinned she was herself Mexican.
    • And as a Brick Joke, his call to On-Star customer service had the receptionist turn out to be the Sassy Black Woman he'd argued with at a hotel years before, who, after a beat, asked " that "ee-glacias" wit' an I?". He immediately hung up and called the Spanish version, only to hear "I speak Spanish too, motherfucker!"
  • Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham does an odd play on this. At one point his puppets Peanut and Jose Jalepeno on a Steek begin conversing with one another in Spanish. Jeff complains to them that he doesn't speak Spanish. Lampshaded by the puppets who, after giving him an Aside Glance, has Jose start singing The Twilight Zone theme while Peanut remarks "Picture if you will..."
  • Carlos Mencia once went to France, and got into an argument with a French server over warm beverages. While he admits that a lot of the argument was his fault due to a cross-cultural misunderstanding, he still got one up on the server when he revealed he spoke perfect French.
    Mencia: Don't tell me to Suck It in French thinking I don't know the language!

    Comic Books 
  • X-Men:
    • In Astonishing X-Men, Hisako is training with Wolverine and the session goes badly:
      Hisako: [in untranslated Japanese] It's shameful that a killer gorilla passes as a teacher here.
      Logan: Aren't you shaming your ancestors with your constant complaining?
    • In Uncanny X-Men #118, Wolverine's fluency in Japanese is first revealed in a similar case. The team is stranded in Japan, there is some huge disaster going on, and there is a newspaper left in there telling precisely the bad things going on. Everybody is surprised that Wolverine (who was still a bag of surprises) understood Japanese. "You Didn't Ask, Bub".
    • In X-Men/Alpha Flight #1, Northstar, who's Québecois, tells Rogue to leave him alone in French. She at first replies in English, then adds, in French: "By the way, sugar, we speak French ourselves in the Mississippi Bayou Country. Can't crowd me out that way." They develop something of an Odd Friendship after that.
    • There have been at least two other times where Northstar's teammates caught him mouthing off in French.
    • Zigzagged. Jubilee doesn't speak Japanese, at all. But when she's accidentally transported to Japan after she and Wolverine had an encounter with Mojo, she ends up in a Japanese jail. Two of the women there say, in their native tongue, "Let's beat her up and take her stuff." They suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of Jubilee's plasma fireworks, as she tells them, in English, "I know what that means in any language."
  • German comic Lula und Yankee:
    Lula: [in German] I bet that when you aren't serving dishes, you like to wear women's clothing.
    French waiter: No, actually I study German at the Sorbonne.
  • Judge Dredd:
    • In a story where McGruder negotiates closer ties with Traktorfaktori, Traktorfaktori's attendant Judges make several comments on Hershey's and Dredd's backsides in Russian. Hershey and Dredd respond angrily, in perfect Russian.
    • During an East Meg Two diplomatic visit to Mega City One, two of the Sov Judges talk to each other in their native tongue while ogling Hershey's arse. She retorts in their own language that they better keep their eyes in check.
  • In Maus, this happens on a date between Anja and Vladek; Anja is speaking to a mutual friend in English about what she thinks of Vladek, not knowing that he also speaks English. This is a positive example, though, since she likes him.
  • In a rare, touching example, in X-23, Laura's martial arts tutor spends their lessons talking to her like a normal human being when not speaking English, in direct contrast to his superior's wishes. After this goes on for some time, his superior demonstrates he also knows the language the instructor is using and forces Laura to kill him.
  • Asterix and the Goths:
    • A Gothic raiding party has captured Getafix and taken him to their Kuningaz, Metric. Metric tells his interpreter, Rhetoric, that "if he refuses [to show his magic], he will be executed, and you with him." When Getafix refuses, Rhetoric says that Getafix will show it when the time is right. Rhetoric then flees before the deception is unmasked, only to run into Astérix and Obélix, who he ends up turning in to Metric. Then, Getafix still says no, but Rhetoric says yes again. Then...
      Getafix: [in Gothic] O Gothic Chief, your interpreter is deceiving you! I never had any intention of showing you my magic!
      [Metric is in too great a rage to speak]
      Rhetoric: [terrified] He speaks Gothic! He speaks Gothic!
    • Subverted in another scene, when Asterix and Obelix are trying to extract information from Rhetoric. He feigns ignorance of Gaulish, only for the ruse to slip when he sneezes and says "thanks" in Gaulish after Asterix says "bless you!"
  • In Batman: Bane of the Demon, Ra's Al-Ghul will converse with Talia Al-Ghul in various languages such as Urdu and Farsi when in front of Bane. As it turns out, Bane is indeed smart enough to understand what they're saying.
  • In Superman & Batman: Generations, Bruce Wayne Jr. and his wife Mei-Lei told their son Clark that they met in Vietnam during the war. The truth is, BJ is only Clark's step-father and the real situation is much more complexnote . When BJ asks Clark to take up the mantle of Batman, Clark declines, explaining that he learned Vietnamese from a classmate years ago and already knows the truth. While he still views BJ as his real father, he doesn't feel that it's right for anyone other than a full-blooded Wayne to be Batman, and instead creates a new heroic identity: Knightwing.

    Comic Strips 
  • FoxTrot: Jason's tap-dancing act in the school's talent show lands him in trouble because one of the teachers understands Morse code.
  • Garfield: Liz reveals she can understand Garfield and Odie with this trope, calling decades of comics into question. Downplayed as she never meows or barks.

    Fan Works 
  • In Black Crayons, Ironhide begins teaching Annabelle some basics about how to speak Cybertronian. This allows her to listen in and participate on a few conversations she wasn't supposed to understand. This includes Skids and Mudflap's plans to pull a prank on Ironhide, use the universal greeting on Barricade, and hear a critical conversation about a traitor in the Autobot's midst.
  • In the Death Note AU Those Who Stand for Nothing Fall for Anything L and his Childhood Friend B are at a party and begin to insult L's ex-boyfriend, Light Yagami ( the Prime Minister of Japan) while he's standing right there with them because Light has led L to believe he doesn't speak a word of English. Later when he gets L alone Light casually informs him "I speak English, by the way."
  • In a Discworld-set fic, a group of drunken and disorderly sailors from Rimwards Howondaland note  decide to be difficult with the City Watch patrol they encounter by only speaking Vondalaansnote  at them. The Watchwoman, who speaks Morporkian with a local accent, then shakes her head, and lets them have it with both barrels in very fluent Vondalaans. After the Watch take advantage of their surprise to make arrests, she tells them she has dual nationality, her mother is from a place called Piemberg in the Transvaal, and took great care to ensure her daughters grew up bilingual.
  • In Symbiosis Bulbasaur insults Ash, Misty and Brock in front of them since he's a Pokemon and he thinks they can't understand him. He constantly accuses them of being spies or idiots until Ash gives him a piece of his mind.
  • In Shatterheart when Mokona gets too far of range for Syaoran and Kurogane to speak to each other, Syaoran uses to this opportunity to tell Kurogane that he has a very nice voice and finds his native language pretty. At first, it seems that Kurogane did understand him, but turns out he didn't. Syaoran lampshaded that would be contrived for Mokona to go back in range just as he says something embarrassing.
  • In The End Was Only the Beginning Gabrielle Delacour gives a convalescing Harry a forty-minute tirade in French after he decides to go for a five-mile run. He tells her in fluent French that he agrees with her description of him as an "impulsive ass" but takes issue with her comment that his birth was the result of "the obscene couplings of a mountain troll and a niffler."
  • In Mortal Kombat vs Marvel Universe, Mey is a Red Lotus plant, sent by Liu Kang and Kitana to keep an eye on Johnny Cage. Johnny figures out that she was sent by the former revenants due to her speaking Edenian whenever she would report in to her superiors, which makes it even more funny that Johnny himself speaks Edenian, but decides to keep Mey around due to her being good at her job.
  • In the Miraculous Ladybug fanfic Lila and the Anger Management Class, Lila makes a comment in Italian before accepting... Then notices that Marinette is giving her a weird look, making her realize that "of course, the aspiring fashion designer with an Italian grandmother could understand Italian" and she now knows her relationship with her parents.
  • In The Horsewomen Of Las Vegas, at a dinner party Charlotte Flair threw to welcome Yakuza members Asuka and Shinsuke Nakamura. Nakamura made a snide comment to Asuka in Japanese about Charlotte, and Charlotte responded in Japanese that if he ever said anything like that about her in her presence again, she would have him fed to dogs.
  • In The Westerosi's second book, Jade has a heated discussion about the Others with Daenerys in the language of the Seven Kingdoms. An irritated Jorah Mormont denounces Jade in Essosi Valyrian. Unfortunately, Jade carries handy Translator Microbes, and she chides him in the same dialect.
  • In Kimi No Na Iowa, after Gonzalez Team experience the Internal Reveal that Ayaka is Japanese-American, O'Bannon storms off while throwing a few insults in Irish. Ayaka promptly speaks up in that very language, perfectly enunciated, having learnt from her swaps with Uileag.
  • I Ain't a Doll, This Ain't a Dollhouse: In chapter 5, Giorno and Mista try to have a private conversation in Italian about Giorno's odd behavior to Josuke, with Giorno confirming that he has a sense of familiarity and doesn't want to kill him. Both of them are overheard by Joseph Joestar, who knows enough Italian thanks to overhearing his wife Suzi Q and his mother Lisa Lisa gossiping in the same tongue. The conversation further Joseph's suspicion that Giorno is the son of DIO and his grandmother Johanna.

    Films — Animated 
  • In Despicable Me, Gru is trying to flatter the adoption agency lady in order to get some kids for his evil plan. At one point he tells her, in a seductive voice, that she has a face como un burro*. She later looks it up in a translation dictionary, and she is not happy.
  • In Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, a depressed Puss tries to get out of talking with a super-excitable dog by grumbling "No hablo ingles". The dog then continues the conversation in fluent Spanish.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Avatar: The Way of Water, when Recombinant Quatrich captures Sully's son Lo'ak and interrogates him about his father's whereabouts, Lo'ak replies in Na'vi language that he doesn't speak English to buttholes. Quatrich simply repeats his question again in near-perfect Na'vi just to make it clear that he can understand Lo'ak in any language and doesn't have patience for stalling.
  • In a deleted scene of the Indian film Ra.One. The story starts out in London, where you wouldn't expect people to know Hindi. Unfortunately for Prateek, the school bully he was insulting in Hindi also knows a bit of it.
    Prateek: [in Hindi] If we do everything, what will this fat buffalo do?
    Bully: [also in Hindi] I know Hindi. A bit.
    Prateek: [in English] Oh crap.
  • There's that scene in Braveheart where William Wallace catches Longshanks's advisor insulting him to Princess Isabelle in Latin and French:
    Advisor: [to Princess] Sanguinarius homo indomitus est, et se me dite cum mendacia.
    (He is a bloody murdering savage. And he's telling lies)
    Wallace: Ego nunquam pronunciari mendacium! Sed ego sum homo indomitus.
    (I never lie. But I am a savage.) [with a Stealth Pun on the secondary meaning of indomitus: "unconquered, untamed"]
    Wallace: [to Princess] Ou en français, si vous préférez?
    (Or in French if you prefer?)
  • In The Alzheimer's Case: Vincke and Verstuyft, using Dutch, agree that main character Ledda (who they think only understands French) looks like "he's spent two years lying face-down on the rail tracks." Ledda later bids them farewell with a deadpan: "I'm going to spend two more years lying face-down on the rail tracks."
  • In The Hunt for Red October, Ramius comments in Russian to Borodin that Mancuso is a "buckaroo", the kind of US Naval commander they were expecting to encounter in their defection plan. Ryan laughs.
    Mancuso: [in English] What's so funny?
    Ryan: [in English] Ah, the Captain seems to think you're some kind of... cowboy.
    Ramius: [in Russian] You speak Russian.
    Ryan: [in Russian] A little. It is wise to study the ways of one's adversary. Don't you think?
    Ramius: [in English] It is.
  • The Librarian in The Librarian films usually turns out to know the language.
  • In Pacific Rim, the two main characters meet this way.
    Mako Mori: [to her boss, in Japanese] He is not what I expected.
    Raleigh Becket: [also in Japanese] Better or worse?
  • In My Fellow Americans, the two main characters run into some Mexicans. One strikes up a conversation, insulting the other man, but after the Mexicans leave the scene the other comes back with: "By the way, yo hablo español muy bien. Dickhead."
  • Inglourious Basterds:
    • The Basterds' and Frau von Hammersmark's plan of infiltrating the theater involves them speaking Italian as the Germans do not know the accents (and they wouldn't have to repeat the bar incident), but one of the people they meet is Hans Landa, who knows Italian and is pretty much able to confirm his suspicions about them by their atrocious accents.
    • Earlier in the film, Landa is cautious about this trope but finds that he doesn't need to be concerned because the family under the floor didn't react to any of the English he and Pierre La Padite spoke.
  • The 2005 film Man of the House featured Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas Ranger serving as a bodyguard to a group of college cheerleaders that witnessed a murder, he confiscates their cell phones for their safety. When he does this, Paula Garces yells "Your Mother fucks dogs, you know that?" in Spanish, Jones replies in Spanish that he can speak the language and in English states it'd be impossible since his Mother is allergic to dogs.
  • Inverted in Men in Black: Insulting the (apparently) Mexican illegal immigrant in Spanish (saying extremely profane/insulting things in a cheery tone of voice) but getting no reaction whatsoever is how K figures out that the alien is an actual alien (as in, extra-terrestrial) in disguise.
  • A similar inversion occurs in Revenge of the Nerds II: The Lambdas end up in a Florida swamp where they are seemingly surrounded by a bunch of Seminoles in full tribal gear. Poindexter stands up and defiantly yells something in a language no one else understood. he then tells the other Lambdas he thinks those are fake Seminoles:
    Scolnick: What makes you say that?
    Poindexter: When I said "Bite my crank" in Seminole, no one responded.
  • In the second half of Phantom Soldiers, protagonist Daniel finds himself waking up in what he assumes to be an American military base after barely surviving a firefight against the titular soldiers, but, in actuality, the base is a front used by the Spetsnaz to develop their own legion of Super-soldiers. Daniel managed to deduce the truth when he overheard the base's cook cussing in Russian while oblivious to Daniel's presence.
  • Done by Cynthia Rothrock's character in the Hong Kong movie Righting Wrongs, when she is insulted by hoodlums and told it's a compliment; one of the hoodlums tries to think of an insult and she gives a suggestion, revealing she speaks Chinese, then beats them up.
  • Hungarian movie Valami Amerika ("A kind of America") revolves around a Hungarian director of TV commercials and video clips, who's trying to convince an American producer of his skills at directing in order to get funding for the movie he's written. Of course, the producer is actually of Hungarian birth, which is revealed at the very start of the movie to the audience, but only much later to the characters.
  • Used as a plot point in the Spanish-language film Ladron que Roba a Ladron ("Thief who Steals from a Thief"). One of the titular thieves pretends not to speak English to an American security guard, who snaps at him "You're in America, speak English." The thief then hears them talking about the security layout of the building, and as he leaves, shoots over his shoulder "Excuse me, señor? You're in America. Speak Spanish."
  • Taking Lives has one as well. Two of the characters consistently talk in another language, often insulting Angelina's character in some manner. If one pays attention, one can see her reacting early on. Eventually, she responds in the same language, leading to a reaction that you may or may not consider "classic" for this particular trope.
  • In Toy Soldiers the Colombian villains are Hiding Behind the Language Barrier by speaking Spanish. They ask one of the students, Ricardo, if he speaks Spanish. Ricardo denies being able to speak the language. When the villain says in Spanish to shoot him anyway Ricardo yells "No, wait!", revealing himself.
  • In Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Bouchard casually abuses Ward in French... until during a meeting with their respective supervisors, Ward reveals that he speaks excellent French and even lived in Paris for a while.
    David Bouchard: [surprised] Tu parles français? (You speak French?)
    Martin Ward: Non, je ne parle pas français. Je me suis fait installer un gadget au cerveau and I see subtitles under people when they speak. (No, I don't speak French. I had a gadget installed in my brain et je vois des sous-titres sous les gens quand ils parlent.)
  • My Life In Ruins has this in the embarrassing direction, as the heroine stands complaining about her life in English while standing in line with a group of Greeks, including her bus driver:
    Georgia: ... and I haven't had sex in forever...
    Bus driver: Forever is a very long time.
She then asks in general how many there understood English, only to have half the crowd raise their hands.
  • In the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Garber is showing a group of Japanese businessmen representing the Tokyo Metro around the New York City Subway command center. Throughout, he addresses them in various insulting ways, such as "dummies", "idiots", and "monkeys". When a subway train is hijacked and he has to end the tour, they thank him — in fluent English and with a very polite yet mocking tone.
    Garber: Johnny, would you take these monkeys up to 13th?
    Japanese executive: It is alright, Lt. Garber. I'm sure we can find it by ourselves. <bows>
  • Invoked and parodied the 90s comedy-parody Fatal Instinct: Lana and her lover meet in a park to plan a murder. Since there's an old black guy sitting on the next bench, they carry out their conversation in Yiddish. When the old man offers some advice, Lana gawps at him and asks "You speak Yiddish?!" He replies "No, but I can read the subtitles."
  • Averted in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Carrie and Charles encounter his deaf brother while out shopping. The two men proceed to converse in sign language, during which Charles complains about Carrie's impending wedding and makes nasty comments about her fiance (he's in love with her) while his brother "comments" on her "beautiful breasts", all the while telling Carrie that they're offering compliments and congratulations. One watches the scene expecting that any minute now, it will be revealed that Carrie knows sign language herself and has understood everything—but it never happens. (It would have been really surprising if she had, as the sign language used in the US isn't related at all to the one used in the UK.)
  • The Peacemaker:
    • George Clooney's character introduces Dr. Julia Kelly to his Russian contact, who says to Clooney in his own language, "A beautiful woman with a Ph.D. You're way out of your league." She butts in to reply in Russian, "You have no idea."
    • When they first meet he hands Kelly a list of names of Russian military personnel. On her remark that the list is useless, Clooney says that the list is written in Russian, only to be told by Kelly in fluent Russian that the list is missing ranks and other details.
  • In The Love Bug, Tennessee speaks to Mr. Wu in Chinese and translates back to Jim Douglas. When Jim discovers that he can't pay the damages, the Judge orders the car sold. Tennessee explains to Mr. Wu that the car is Herbie, at which point, Mr. Wu says he wants the car himself. At that point, Jim (a bit angry) snaps that Mr. Wu can get the car, but has to allow him to drive Herbie in the El Dorado race. Mr. Wu gets the winnings, but Douglas gets to buy back Herbie for a dollar. This prompts Mr. Wu to say loudly in English, "Now you speak my language!" It's a Double Entendre coupled with Rule of Funny, which the entire movie runs on.
  • In What's Cooking, a film about four families on one street corner at Thanksgiving, the Hispanic family is introduced to the Vietnamese boyfriend of the daughter. While fetching down a high-up dish in the kitchen, all the female relatives compliment his 'looks' and are very embarrassed when he turns out to speak perfect Spanish.
  • In Simply Irresistible, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a chef who runs a small restaurant in New York. She's given a chance to step in and replace a celebrity chef at a brand-new, big-money restaurant. The celebrity chef's staff pretty much holds her in contempt. The sous chef, who probably expected as the "second in command" of the restaurant to step into the top spot when the celebrity left, says loudly and in French, "The truffles are probably wasted on her!" Later in the film, Gellar's character issues her orders for the night and begins with, "You... the one who thinks I don't know how to speak French... you're in charge of the truffles. That way I won't waste them."
  • In Maid in Manhattan, Christopher Marshall and Marissa are gossiped about by two elderly Frenchwomen while sharing the elevator with them. He then pulls this trope by addressing them in French, much to their dismay—they call him a "pig" even though he has politely invited them to join them for a walk.
  • In Au revoir les enfants, set in Occupied France, Julien and Jean become lost in the woods at night until they are rescued and returned to their boarding school by a group of German soldiers. When they arrive, one of the other pupils exclaims, "They've been arrested by the Boches!", using a French slur for Germans, to which one of the soldiers replies in deadpan French, "Can the Boches have their blanket back?"
  • In the third Riddick movie, Santana tries to insult Dahl in Spanish. She immediately beats his face in when she hears it.
  • A version in The Namesake. When a character talks to her French friend in... French, it triggers her mother-in-law's (correct) suspicions that there's more to the relationship.
  • The Monuments Men: The Allies capture a group of Germans who were transporting stolen art to Germany. The German-American refugee soldier Epstein quietly listens on as the Germans' captain and his XO (who switched uniforms before being captured) talk about where they took it. Then Epstein walks up, and in fluent German promises the captain that he'll give Hitler his regards when they take Berlin.
  • In the Irish short film Na Fíorghael, a couple of clients at a psychologist's office are positive that the receptionist is insulting them in her phone conversations (which are all in Irish). They take it upon themselves to learn Irish for six months well enough that this happens. Turns out this was deliberately provoked by the receptionist.
  • In John Wick, during their first meeting Iosef attempts to disguise an insult to the title character by speaking in Russian, calling him a bitch. John responds in Russian that he's no one's bitch, shocking Iosef.
  • In The World Is Not Enough, James Bond is impersonating a Russian nuclear expert, Mikhail Arkov. Dr. Christmas Jones suspects something wrong with "Dr. Arkov" and tests him:
    Dr. Christmas Jones: By the way, [in Russian] your English is very good for a Russian.
    James Bond: [in Russian] I studied at Oxford.
  • The Dogs of War: In the movie Shannon goes on a reconnaissance mission where he leaves his local guide behind, taunting him with "In my jungle you'd be just another asshole", thinking that the man only knows the Zangaron language. After Shannon is imprisoned and tortured by the authorities and kicked out of the country, it turns out that the guide is proficient in English when he reveals to Shannon that he's a supporter of the Kimba regime and the one who reported him. "Can't leave Zangaro without your passport...asshole."
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter goes to the local deli for an afternoon snack and chats with the owner Mr. Delmar who asks him how Aunt May is doing. Delmar turns to the cook and tells him in Spanish that Aunt May is a gorgeous Italian woman. Peter proceeds to ask Delmar in Spanish how his daughter is doing.
  • In Boy Wonder, when Sean and the detective, Teresa, stop by a Chinese restaurant for a snack Teresa is called a bitch in Chinese by two of the employees. Sean then walks up and tells them both, in Chinese “You should watch your mouth. I have half a mind to come back here and put a bullet in your head and your ugly wife.”
  • Nick in Black Rain has a habit of assuming that the Japanese don't understand him when they don't immediately respond, only to run headfirst into this trope.
    Nick Conklin: Just hope they got a Nip in this building who speaks fucking English.
    Matsumoto Masahiro: [overhearing] Assistant Inspector Matsumoto Masahiro, Criminal Investigation section, Osaka Prefecture police. And I do speak fucking English.
  • The Great Escape: During the planning stages of the escape, one of the prisoners is being coached in conversational German. The instructor suddenly asks him a question in English and the other responds in English. The instructor warns him not to do that because it's a pretty basic way for Gestapo agents tracking the escapees to ferret them out. After the escape, a Gestapo agent indeed pulls this, and it's the instructor himself who falls for it and is caught.
  • In Green Book Tony runs into a few friends who make disparaging remarks about his black boss Don in Italian, and offer him a job that pays twice as much. Later Don has a chat with Tony, in perfect Italian.
  • In Blood Red Sky, the hijackers (whose true motives are never revealed) plan to blow up the plane over London and frame Middle Eastern Terrorists for it, and to that end, they grab an Arab passenger, Farid, and force him to read into a microphone a message in Arabic taking credit. When he does so, he ends it by saying that he was coerced into reading the message. The hijackers' leader Berg then shoots a hostage and tells Farid, in perfect Arabic, to read it correctly.
  • Rang De Basanti: Unsurprisingly given her academic field of interest (The Raj), the English Sue is fluent in Hindi. However, DJ assumes that the white girl can only understand English and somewhat aggressively flirts with her in Punjabi-tinged Hindi, while providing "translations" (the rest of their friend group, who know, are visibly barely able to contain their laughter). Sue doesn't reveal that she speaks Hindi till the gang visit DJ's home, after letting DJ tell his mother that she is his new wife, when she greets her in Hindi to DJ's shock and everyone else's amusement.
  • Played for laughs in the Disney Movie McFarland, USA:
    Coach White: [in English] David, tell your father it was an honor to be invited to his home.
    David: [also in English] Dad, he said it was an honor.
    Father: [in English] Tell him I said thanks.
  • The Host (2006): The American doctor and Korean translator speak among themselves about how the virus that the monster was supposedly carrying that was used as justification for quarantining the city isn't real and was made up by the military to make containment easier for them. Unfortunately for them, the nearby Gang-du is smarter than they assume and also knows just enough English to get the gist of what they're saying and thus they've just exposed the Government Conspiracy.

  • In Lords of the Bow, Chen Yi provides transport to Khasar, Temuge, and Ho Sa. Chen Yi puts up a pretense of only speaking Chinese, but when they get to his house and the travellers begin discussing how to deal with him, he decides to reveal that he also speaks decent Mongolian.
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris has a story about this. Sedaris is an American expat living in France, and while he's on the Paris subway an American tourist starts talking about him to his (the tourist's) girlfriend, saying that he smells bad and telling her that he is a pickpocket. At one point he tells his girlfriend that the man Sedaris was with was his partner for theft; the man is Sedaris's boyfriend. Sedaris never confronts them - he just spreads the story worldwide.
  • In Mary Stewart's The Merlin Trilogy, the title character is captured by some bandits who are discussing in their language what to do with him, thinking he doesn't understand. They'd been trying to start a fire and having no luck, because it'd been raining all day and the wood was soaked. When Merlin finally let them know he spoke their language, all he said was, "Stand away from the fire." Then he showed them who he was and what he could do to them by igniting a massive fire with a glance.
  • The Bulgarian Minister of Magic in Harry Potter does this just to humiliate Fudge. Apparently Fudge's sign language was funny.
    Fudge: Wait, you can speak English?! I've been trying to mime things all day!
    Bulgarian Minister: Vell, it vas very funny...
  • Discworld:
    • Jingo:
      • Unseen University awarded visiting Klatchian Prince Kufurah a "Doctorum Adamus Cum Flabello Dulci", Doctor of Sweet Fanny Adamsnote . It's made clear that the visitors are quite as learned in Latatian as the Ankhian scholars.
      • Later, the Klatchians show themselves to be smarter. When the Prince meets with Lord Rust he first introduces a local proverb in Klatchian, which actually is just "Can you understand me?" When Rust's translator can't figure it out (Rust had chosen an interpreter who could read Klatchian fluently, but couldn't speak it), he starts with the insults, again pretending they are proverbs. "As we say in Klatch, I can't believe this man"."
    • In Unseen Academicals, a dwarf shopkeeper pretends not to speak Morporkian and amuses himself by insulting his customers in Dwarfish. At least, until Nutt calls him out on this behavior in letter-perfect Dwarfish.
    • In The Fifth Elephant, Vimes notices an Uberwaldean guard who claims not to speak Morporkian watching him and realizes that he must understand Morporkian after all. Just to double-check, he tells his interpreter to tell the soldier that he has a fly on his nose, and sees his hand start to move toward his nose before he catches himself.
    • In Making Money, Vetinari tells Moist "Pas devant le gendarme" and Detritus says helpfully, "Dat mean no talkin' in front of me." Unusual, because (as a troll in a temperate climate) Detritus is generally considered a bit slow. That said, it's implied (or out-and-out stated) several places that he's Obfuscating Stupidity and is generally much more clever than he lets on. (In this case, it's likely more that Detritus is "street smart" and knows Vetinari more than he actually understands "Quirmian.") Alternatively, the Watch novels also make it clear that in a multilingual city with over a million people, policemen are capable of becoming functionally fluent in a lot of commonly spoken languages, as a matter of practical necessity. Commander Vimes, for instance, can communicate, at a street-argot level, in both Trollish and Dwarfish. If a Troll can pick up one human language, why not two?
  • Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. Calyxa is from Montreal and has a habit of delivering insults in French. This backfires when she does this to Deacon Hollingshead, a powerful figure in the theocracy that rules the country. He replies in French that he's not an idiot and will have her arrested if she tries it again.
  • In his autobiographical novel, My Happy Days in Hell, György Faludy tells a story about two retired Latin teachers, who publicly talked to each other in Latin, criticizing the totalitarian dictatorship of 1950s Hungary. However, a professor of Classical Philology heard them, and informed the authorities.
  • In Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day, the Anti-Hero gets captured by the Turkish State Sec and his interview is being conducted in French, a language both he and the officer speak. At one point, he starts ranting in English, and the officer reveals he's fluent in that language as well.
  • Bill Bryson and his traveling companion Stephen Katz found themselves on the wrong end of this trope as teenagers, as recorded in Neither Here Nor There, when a Turkish restaurateur Katz had just insulted rather graphically "turned out to have spent thirteen years working in a Turkish restaurant on the Tottenham Court Road, and escorted us from the premises with the aid of a meat cleaver."
  • Played with in The Shadow pulp novel "The Golden Pagoda". At one point, the Chinese crimelord Li Hoang personally executes the guard who not only failed to keep Harry Vincent prisoner, but begged for mercy. He wasn't begging for mercy, he was reporting events accurately and almost screwed up The Shadow's plan. "Li Hoang" was an impostor, who didn't speak a word of Chinese. The Shadow does, knew exactly what the guard was saying, and realized what the real situation was.
    • Similarly in "The Romanoff Jewels", Ivan Motkin and his thugs have Lamont Cranston or whom they think is Lamont Cranston, actually The Shadow in Cranston's guise captured and discuss murdering him in Russian. They don't realize that he speaks Russian fluently and catches on to the peril and makes moves to escape.
  • Averted in The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar, when the polyglot protagonist turns out to not know Tatar, allowing the two tatars to mock him behind his back in the Tbilisi bathhouse.
  • In the Circle of Magic quartet by Tamora Pierce, when the four main characters first meet at Discipline Cottage, Briar rudely asks why Daja, a Trader, is wearing red for mourning. After Daja explains, she looks over at Sandry, who also speaks the Trader language, and says in that language, "And he is a kaq" (a very rude word for a non-Trader.) Briar immediately says in Trader-talk, "I haven't spent my life with my fingers in my ears. And I'm not stupid."
  • In Rudyard Kipling's Kim, many Indians amuse themselves by acting subservient to the British while hurling terrible insults at them in Hindi. At one point a street-sweeper does this to Kim, currently in European dress, which turns out a mistake. In a later chapter, when Kim speaks disparagingly in Hindi about a couple of Europeans in their presence to the lama, the lama gently chides him that it is unworthy to take advantage of other people's ignorance in that way.
  • A sci-fi example occurs towards the end of Barry Longyear's Enemy Mine when the human hero is traveling to the Drac homeworld and fluently and profanely responds to a fellow-traveler Drac's insults; the Drac's companions have to physically restrain him.
  • In the opening section of The Vor Game, Miles Vorkosigan never lets on to a bunch of Greek speaking soldiers who have been insulting him that he understands every word they're saying.
  • In Magic Kingdom for Sale — SOLD!, Ben is negotiating with the leader of a tribe of dangerous and brutal crag trolls, using his court wizard Questor Thews as a translator. When negotiations go badly, he's forced to threaten to summon the king's champion, the Paladin, to defend his party. When Questor voices doubt about this, Ben angrily insists that a bluff is their only chance to escape at this stage—and Questor notices that although the troll leader doesn't speak Landoverian, he apparently understands it. And then things get bad.
  • In The Company Novels, at one point Mendoza and her fellow go to Venice, where they make whoopee in a canal boat. The gondolier comments loudly on the action to his fellow gondoliers, assuming the pair don't speak his language. After they're done, Mendoza tells him in his own language exactly what he can do with his pole. And doesn't tip.
  • In Malevil, temperamental old woman, La Menou, is not pleased that another old woman, La Falvine, survived World War III and will be living with them. She proceeds to rant at Emmanuel for bringing La Falvine home; accusing her of being too old to work, gluttony because she's fat, and an incestuous relationship with her Evil Poacher son, all in their regional patois so that the "foreign" woman won't understand. La Falvine bursts into tears, argues back in patois, revealing she's a local and a distant cousin.
  • In The Ugly American, American diplomats hire natives of the fictional war-torn Southeast Asian country to work as servants in their embassy. A visiting Chinese diplomat discovers and explains that at least some of the servants are spies pretending not to understand English.
  • In A Desert Called Peace, when Carrera is drowning his sorrows over the wife and children killed in a terrorist attack, he demonstrates to a woman insulting him in Spanish that he, too, speaks the language, in spite of a conversation with the woman's friend being in English.
  • In one of the Perry Mason novels, Perry is being arrested. He advises Della, in legal terminology, to track down a particular witness. When she does, she finds a note saying "Just because a police officer has a cauliflower ear, doesn't mean he didn't take debate in high school."
  • Julius Caesar and Mhorbaine both do it to each other in Emperor: The Field of Swords. Mhorbaine initially speaks only in Gaulish, preferring not to let Caesar know he understands what the Romans are saying in Latin. For his part, Mhorbaine is unaware that Caesar's Spanish scribe, Adan, happens to know Gaulish, which means Caesar is able to find out the Gauls are talking about when they think they're in private.
  • Played with in Shogun. Blackthorne and Mariko speak to each other in Latin when they don't want to be understood by Japanese or Portuguese speakers. Unfortunately, some enemy samurai are Catholic, and they also speak Latin. Blackthorne figures out who was eavesdropping by reciting a prayer and waiting for an "Amen".
  • In Ngaio Marsh's novel Death of a Peer, during a murder investigation, the upper-class Lamprey family decide to converse amongst themselves in French while deciding on the not-exactly-true story they're going to tell the police, blithely assuming that the humble constable left to watch over them won't be able to understand a word. Unfortunately for them, the constable in question lived in France until he was 15 years old, and keeps perfect notes of everything they say.
  • This happens at King Fulrach's formal dinner in the first book of The Belgariad. Silk and Garion insult the Earl of Seline in the Drasnian sign language, in which the Earl turns out to be fluent. Silk is aware of this, however, and the Earl understood that Silk is just having a laugh at Garion's expense.
  • In Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, the main character is Irish but understands English perfectly well. She fluently speaks both languages, except that for most of the book she's not allowed to speak. Three English men pick her up and take her to England from Ireland. She is quite seasick on the way there, and two of the men, though helpful, make comments about it, thinking she doesn't understand. The third one, who knows she does understand, debates how long to let them go on before letting them know that she does, in fact, understand what they're saying.
  • In I, Claudius (the novel), the young Claudius overhears Augustus and Athenodorus talking about him in Greek. The following ensues:
    I cannot remember the epigram exactly, but the sense of it was: "Antonia is old-fashioned: she does not buy a pet marmoset at great expense from an Eastern trader. And why? Because she breeds them herself." Athenodorus thought for a moment and replied severely in the same metre: "Antonia, so far from buying a pet marmoset from Eastern traders, does not even cosset and feed with sugar-plums the poor child of her noble husband." Augustus looked somewhat abashed. I should explain that neither he nor Athenodorus, to whom I had always been represented as a half-wit, guessed that I could understand what they were saying. So Athenodorus drew me towards him and said playfully in Latin: "And what does young Tiberius Claudius think about the matter?" I was sheltered from Augustus by Athenodorus's big body and somehow forgot my stammer. I said straight out, in Greek: "My mother Antonia does not pamper me, but she has let me learn Greek from someone who learned it directly from Apollo."
  • Thanks to Aide, the titular general of the Belisarius Series can become fluent in languages very quickly just by listening to them. This becomes a critical factor during his mission to India when the Malwa and their allies don't realize until too late that he can speak Hindi, Kushan, and several other languages like a native, and he makes the effort to not let them know this until it's too late.
  • There's a CSI: NY tie-in novel where Lindsay and Stella are processing a scene at a bakery, and the owner uses a derogatory Italian term for a female cop. What he doesn't realize is that Stella speaks some Italian, and though she's rusty, she knows exactly what he's saying.
  • In Nice Work by David Lodge, academic Robyn Penrose accompanies factory manager Vic Wilcox to Germany to buy used plant. At dinner with the two German sellers he leaves the table to take a whizz and they switch to German and congratulate each other on palming him off with an obsolescent model. Robyn takes leave in elegant German and they realize their scheme has been rumbled, allowing Vic to buy the newer model at the same price. A key point in the novel as this triumph brings the previously mutually antagonistic Vic and Robyn together.
  • In The General Series, Raj Whitehall is already fluent in several languages and knows a bit of others. This comes in handy during his campaigns when he's dealing with various foreign groups and they assume he doesn't understand what they're saying. Among his wife's spies, the former slaves from distant countries also use this to their advantage by not letting on how many languages they speak.
  • In The Doll, Stanislaw's love interest discusses her love affair with her friend in English, unaware that Stanislaw, who is in the same room, has been taking English lessons to impress her. Later on, the heartbroken Stanislaw wonders if he maybe misunderstood something from their conversation.
  • In the Polish action novel Całe zdanie nieboszczyka the protagonist knows a lot of languages, but she puts on a show of Language Fluency Denial for the gangsters that captured her. They end up frequently discussing their plans in detail right in front of her, thinking she cannot understand a thing.
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's Seekers of the Sky duology, Ilmar and another character are taken on a tour of Aquincum (Budapest in Real Life) by a Magyar (Hungarian) teenager named Peter and try to talk amongst themselves in Gallic (French). Halfway through the conversation, Peter offers (in Gallic) to leave them alone, if they'd rather he not hear what they are saying. It turns out that Peter speaks eight languages and is teaching himself yet another one. For some reason, he's not working as a translator. For reference, these languages are his native Magyar (Hungarian), Roman (Latin, the language of the State), Gallic, Russian, Judaic (Hebrew), Ottoman (Turkish), Germanic, and Iberian (Spanish). The language he's learning is Chinese.
  • In the Relativity story "August Moon", the titular villain is a powerful telepath. In order to prevent him reading their minds and knowing their every move, the heroes decide to do all their thinking in Portuguese. Thanks to this trope, it doesn't work out so well.
  • The Novelization of Star Trek has a bit where Uhura talks to her roommate in Orion Prime in front of Kirk regarding his numerous exploits with female cadets. Kirk then surprises them with a response in Orion.
  • In Alistair MacLean's The Dark Crusader (a.k.a. Black Shrike) the protagonists start planning their escape in front of their Korean guard, who curtly tells them in English to shut up.
  • Wolf Hall has an awkward dinner party where the Holy Roman Emperor's new ambassador switches to French to speculate about Thomas Cromwell's sketchy origins, not knowing that those origins include becoming a polyglot during twelve years in Europe. Cromwell replies that he's not so sure himself, but if they want to talk about him they should try Greek. He also surprises Mark Smeaton by reminding him of unsavory gossip Smeaton passed while speaking Flemish (although that wasn't intentional as Cromwell had been eavesdropping at the time).
  • In Goodbye To Berlin, Chris invites both Natalia Landauer and Sally Bowles to lunch, and much to his horror, Sally arrives late and explains in English that she was having sex with "a filthy Jew". Natalia, being Jewish and having some proficiency in English, is insulted, and tries to shut Sally out of the conversation by speaking with Chris in German, only to discover that Sally knows enough German that she can loudly brag about her sex life in it.
  • Thrawn has Thrawn get an interpreter who speaks Sy Bisti, in the Empire a language so obscure no translator has it programmed, but a common trader's tongue in the Unknown Regions. As time goes on it becomes more and more clear that Thrawn has little need for a translator but is keeping Vanto on to groom him for command. Later, they capture some Rebels and offer to let them go, the Rebels are left together to discuss the offer and where they'd go instead of the base... In Sy Bisti.
  • In P. G. Wodehouse's The Adventures of Sally, the eponymous heroine is relaxing on the sea side in southern France when an Englishman nearby comments to his companion about how pretty he finds her, and goes on to rant about her beauty, along with the fact that nobody around understand English. Sally being American, she understands the whole conversation perfectly, and takes the opportunity of a later chance encounter with the Englishman to make gentle fun of him, to his deep embarrassment.
  • In Blood For A Dirty Dollar, two men, Sir Edward Wildon and Professor Olney Evans are held by Mexican bandit chief Bandera. They don't want any Spanish speakers to hear their conversation, so they discuss an escape plan in French. This backfires when they learn that their guard is French Canadian.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, this comes up at the hobbits' first encounter with elves, and Frodo reveals that he speaks High-Elvish:
    Gildor: Be careful, friends! Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master. Hail, Elf-friend!
  • In The Witchlands, Merik and Safi's first meeting has them engage in a heated row. Merik switches to his native Nubrevnan to insult Safi. She snarls that she speaks the language, and promptly switches to Nubrevnan and proceeds to shower him with curses.
  • Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves: Searching for Rebel spy Scarlet Hark, Han Solo pretends that Scarlet's breakfast delivery order is his own, so he can get her address off the label, and is pushy about it to the Twi'lek restauranteur. She tells the cook he's a "nerf's behind" in her own language, then apologizes for the delay. Han is of course much more familiar with Twi'lek than his disguise as an Imperial officer would suggest, and he repeats the phrase in Basic, but in a friendly manner to apologize for his ruse.
    Han: Just wrap it up when it's ready, and I'll take it. I mean, I don't want to be a nerf's behind about the whole thing.
  • There's a variation in the John Rain novels when Rain does a Deadly Delivery as a Korean restaurant worker, only to find the receptionist can speak some of the language because her boyfriend is Korean. Fortunately, you don't have to be Korean to work for a Korean restaurant.
  • In The Royal Diaries book Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, Pompey, believing neither Cleopatra nor her father understood Latin, proceeded to insult Ptolemy to his face and said something to Cleopatra (she doesn't go into details, but given her reaction, it was probably sexual harassment). Then Cleopatra reveals she can understand Latin, and makes it clear that she and her father would leave if he continues to insult them.

  • Wee Papa Girl Rappers' 1988 hit "Wee Rule" mentions the narrator being insulted and sworn at in French by someone who doesn't know she's "passed exams in French".

    Mythology & Religion 
  • Older Than Feudalism: Joseph does this to his brothers in The Bible. They don't recognize him, so he speaks Egyptian to them through an interpreter even though he knows what they are saying.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Believe it or not, there was actually a feud based around the Bilingual Backfire; there was a brief period of time where WWE Divas Champion Maryse would come up to Gail Kim and talk about how great a wrestler she is and how she respects her, etc., and then say something in French. This went on for a few weeks until Kim attacked Maryse, revealed she was fluent in French, and knew the entire time that Maryse was trash-talking her to her face.
  • Japanese wrestler, former sumo grand champion and notorious hard-ass Koji Kitao was on a US tour years ago. According to a wrestler buddy, his opponent walked over before their match and exclaimed "IN AMERICA WE DON'T WORK STIFF, WE WORK LIGHT." Eh-nun-cee-ay-ting every word for his benefit. Kitao smiled and nodded in apparent agreement. His opponent left the room, at which point Kitao said something in perfect English along the lines of "stupid f**king asshole, didn't he think I know English?" They had their match, where Kitao proceeded to stiff the unholy hell out of him and separated his shoulder with a judo slam for good measure.
  • Bayley for a while was talked down upon by the rest of Damage CTRL (IYO SKY, Asuka and Kairi Sane) and whenever the three of them did, they always did it in Japanese to make sure Bayley wouldn't catch them. However... when Bayley was choosing her opponent for WrestleMania and the rest of Damage CTRL was laughing at her, Bayley then turns to the 3 and asks if they are done laughing before saying "watashi wakaru yo" which is "I understand" in Japanese, which shocked the other three revealing she has overheard and picked up on Japanese lingo.

  • A Deaf baseball player named Luther "Dummy" Taylor (he played from 1900 to 1908, so "Dummy" referred to Mr. Taylor's inability to speak) used sign language to pester Hank O'Day, an umpire he had a feud with. O'Day spent his time learning sign language, then after one taunting, told Taylor to go to the clubhouse and pay $25 — using sign language.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya's first Formula One pole position. ITV commentator Martin Brundle asked him, 'Congratulations, how's it feeling?' Montoya (who is from Colombia) was rude enough to reply in Spanish, then rubbed it in by asking, 'What d’you think of that?!' Brundle's reply? 'Si, es es muy bien!'
  • After he was traded to the New York Yankees by the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki was asked by an interviewer whether his experiences with the Japanese media prepared him for the tougher press scrutiny and paparazzi coverage he would face in New York. Ichiro, who after playing 12 years in the US does know English, replied in Japanese that that was a rather stupid question. Unfortunately the Japanese translator sitting beside him translated this.

  • In the first scene of The King and I, the Kralahome initially speaks to Anna through an interpreter; however, when she refuses to be treated as a doormat, he starts speaking in perfect English and calls her out on her poor manners and ignorance of protocol.
  • Happened on the Nuits De Paris sketch of Les Luthiers with French.
  • Larry Shue's play The Foreigner is made of this trope. A tourist pretends to be a foreigner who doesn't speak English so he doesn't have to have small talk conversations with others. Since he doesn't speak English, people have various conversations in front of him which eventually reveals a plot to drive the owner of the lodge out and use the place for KKK meetings.
  • In the musical of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mrs Meers believes that the two Asian brothers working for her can't speak any English. Thus, she has no problem berating them in English and, at one point, mocking them by saying how she has no plan to actually help them get their mother from Hong Kong to America (which was the only reason they were helping her for). The brothers make it clear that they think she's an idiot, and end up having no problem turning her in to the police at the end, with one of the brothers telling her in English "I speak better English than you speak Chinese!"
  • This trope is Older Than Feudalism. In Plautus' comedy Poenulus the Carthaginian slave Milphio speaks perfect Latin, but pretends to know only Punic ... the better to take advantage of the Roman locals who are conspiring against his master.

    Video Games 
  • A number of NPCs from rival but allied factions in World of Warcraft have a long, repeating argument in Netherstorm. At one point one of the blood elves mutters something in her own language that one of the draenei says she understood:
    Magistrix Larynna: [in Thalassian] Dor shar'adore da shando! (I'm Surrounded by Idiots!)
    Anchorite Karja: The magistrix will be happy to know I'm fluent in Thalassian. Your courtesy is not lost on me.
  • In World in Conflict, a pre-mission cutscene has Colonel Sawyer (American) and Commandant Sabatier (French) arguing, in English, about letting an American officer command NATO forces. Sabatier voices his annoyance in his native tongue. Sawyer shuts him down in the same.
    Sabatier: Vous arrogants Americains, vous pensez que vous dirigez le monde comme il vous plais!translation
    Sawyer: Nous avons une guerre à gagner et je vais faire ce qui me semble nécessaire.translation
  • In the PC adventure game The Last Express, Robert Cath speaks English, French, and German, and can understand when two gossiping ladies switch their conversation to French so that they can talk about him when he's in the room.
  • In Mercenaries, the leaders of the South Korean, Chinese, and Russian Mafia factions will occasionally speak in their native languages in front of the player; each of the mercs speaks one of those languages, but they don't actually call the speakers out on it. Of course, this can make the speakers look kind of stupid: it's one thing for the South Koreans to do this to Chris Jacobs (who looks African-American but is half Korean), but it's entirely another for the Chinese to do it to Jennifer Mui (who, if the name didn't give it away, is very clearly of Chinese heritage); as for the Russians, their leader actually is an idiot.
  • In Pokémon X and Y, a Kantonian woman whose Pokemon were stolen comes to Looker's office in search of help, but Looker can't speak her language (English in the Japanese version, Japanese in all other versions). She is very upset that Looker dashes off to buy tea rather than help her out, and calls Looker and everyone in his agency idiots... right as Looker's ward Emma comes in, who does speak the woman's language.
    Emma: Hey! Lady! Call me whatever you want, but I will never forgive insults toward Mr. Looker!
  • Bravely Second has a subversion. The floating city of Sagitta speaks largely in French. At one point, a young boy named Procyon insults Tiz's hair while speaking to his father in French. Tiz does not speak French (though he could still tell that his hair was being made fun of), but Magnolia does. Procyon's father knew this, but Procyon did not.
  • In Tomb Raider: Legend, after Lara saves two Kazakhs who were being held at gunpoint by one of Rutland's mercenaries, she demands to know where the command center of the military base they're protecting is. The Kazakhs are hesitant to give her the information, and revert to their native language, Russian, to argue. They eventually comply and, in English, tell her the location and code she needs. Lara mocks them by responding in Russian as well, thanking them for their aide.
  • In Saints Row 2, when Dane Vogel meets Kazuo Akuji in order to renew the protection deal between Ultor Corp and the Ronin, Akuji clearly demonstrates that he is not interested in treating Ultor as equal partners by snapping at Vogel something to the effect of "Why should I even care about anything you say?" in Japanese. Unimpressed, Vogel calmly replies (albeit in English) that Kazuo should care because Ultor is a giant MegaCorp that formally employs his son Shogo (who was in charge of the Ronin until Akuji took over in person).
  • Life Is Strange 2: In Episode 4, Sean (a mixed-race, bilingual American boy whose father was originally from Mexico) is accosted by a pair of racist men who demand that he disparage himself in Spanish for their entertainment. The player can choose to have Sean make a Your Mom joke while pretending to comply. In a Downplayed example of this trope, the guys really don't speak Spanish, but they do know enough basic vocabulary to make out "madre" and figure the rest out from context, which goes down about as well as you'd expect.
  • The trope is inverted towards the end of Planescape: Torment. The main character encounters his previous incarnations, including the Paranoid Incarnation, who learned the language of the Uyo, killed every other speaker, then wrote his diary in Uyo, ensuring no-one would be able to decipher it. If you've found the journal and remembered the language, you can speak to him in Uyo and immediately win his trust.
  • Yakuza 6; the leader of the Chinese Saio Triad, Big Lo, says something to one of his underlings in Chinese. Yuta, one of the Hiroshima yakuza allied with Kiryu, learned Chinese as a kid and explains to the others what they were talking about: that there's a world-shattering secret in Onomichi that Kiryu must not learn about, which of course sets him on the path to find out what that is. Though given that Lo knows damn well Yuta is his Spare to the Throne and he's been gunning for revenge against the men who killed his other son Jimmy, it might have been intentional on his part.
    • A flashback in which Big Lo and his son Jimmy are negotiating with the Iwami family has the former converse in Chinese about them refusing the deal, only for Tsuneo Iwami to reveal that he understands Chinese.

    Visual Novels 

    Web Animation 
  • Lopez of Red vs. Blue often delivers extremely sarcastic asides in (bad) Spanish, as he knows no one speaks it. Then in Season 12, he finally finds someone who does:
    Donut: [Locus] doesn't make any sense!
    Lopez: Esto se debe a que es una locura. (That's because he's insane.)
    Locus: I am NOT!
    Lopez: ¡Alarm! ¡Mierda que es bilingue! ¡Por favor no me mates! (Oh shit! He's bilingual! Please don't kill me!)note 
  • In Zany To The Max, Jakko Zarner explains plans to his siblings, Takko and Zot, in Finnish, not knowing that Sikko understands Finnish as well (he thinks she only understands English and Japanese, Sikko being an "Anime"-looking character), and also not knowing that she's even listening in.

  • Played straight in this Pixie and Brutus comic strip
  • Dominic Deegan:
    • Luna discovers that while Hobgoblins can't speak English, they can fully understand it. As you can see.
    • Also happens before that, when Stonewater's group arrives to the Barthis benefit concert and it turns out that Dominic can speak Orcish.
  • One comic in Exploitation Now had Jordan and Bush hitching a ride on a bus full of Asian girls from an anime con. One of the girls in front of them notices the two and seeing Bush, thinking she a fellow Asian (since Bush is half Asian) starts to mock Jordan in her native tongue thinking Jordan can't understand her. However it turns out Bush can't understand the language but Jordan can and quickly lets the girl know she not amused.
  • Goblin Hollow has Lilly's puma grandparents insult Ben the bear in Navajo, until he reveals he knows the language.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court:
    • On this page, Gamma mutters to herself in Polish, calling Antimony and Kat stupid. Annie replies in Polish, "That wasn't very nice."
    • Averted in a later scene where we learn that Gamma does not understand English, and depends on her telepathic bond with Zimmy for interpretation... and Zimmy is being less than honest in her translations.
  • Kevin & Kell: In a 2010 story arc, Kell and Frank Mangle have what they think is a private conversation by speaking feline in order to keep the subject of their conversation (that Frank plans to challenge their boss R.L. to combat for control of Herd Thinners) a secret from R.L. until a key moment. It backfires because R.L. is also fluent in feline and somehow overheard their conversation on the matter, though he keeps this secret until after the challenge is held.
  • Averted in the logical way in Khaos Komix:
    Tom: Mom, this is Alex
    Alex: H-Hi.
    Mom: Hablas Español?note 
    Alex: Wha?
    Mom: Usa condones. Eres hombre ahora pero todavia puedes quedar embarazada.note 
    Tom: MOM!
    Alex: What did she say?
    Tom: You do not want to know.
  • This episode of Megatokyo has Piro supposedly translating what Largo is saying to Kimiko, only since what Largo is saying is mostly insane rambling, he is instead making up reasons why they keep Ping around... then Erika, who is also bilingual, shows up.
  • In the Ménage à 3 strip for January 20, 2011 (marginally NSFW), Sandra is unconcerned about discussing her private life with Matt because she assumes that Senna, who is from Brazil, speaks "Brazilianese". She does, plus four other languages including English.
  • At one point in The Order of the Stick, the Order is facing a dragon while Vaarsuvius has been turned into a lizard from a previous encounter. Vaarsuvius laments their own present uselessness in the encounter to themself, and the dragon empathizes in Lizard. One of the few spells Vaarsuvius can still use as a lizard is Suggestion, which requires a common language between caster and target...
  • In 21st Century Fox Jack is seeing a North Korean factory that his employers want to buy and some Russians are discussing how the hover tanks being displayed are based on their country's stolen designs and how they can't let the Westerners get their hands on them. One asks the other if it's safe to discuss this with the American fox nearby and the other tells him not to worry as he hacked Jack's translator. Then Jack mentions that he fixed it.
  • Invoked on purpose in My Stupid Life, an autobiography comic by Mitch Clem, the creator of Nothing Nice to Say. A tattoo artist he's friends with mentions that she's getting a tattoo that's the Spanish word for "The Farting Woman", just so she can pretend she was told it meant "The Smiling Girl", and then break down crying when people correct her.
  • In Darths & Droids, when Lando announces he's confiscating Han's ship, Han reassures his teammates in Pig Latin (possibly a Translation Convention for Thieves' Cant, but other characters have no reason for knowing it), saying that they'll just steal it back. Lando answers in kind.
  • Bite Me!: Luther's habit of insulting people in High German backfires, when it turns out Claire (of all people) speaks the language.
  • Paradigm Shift: A Triad gangster is under police guard in hospital after coming off worst in a shoot-out, and refusing to say a word in any language but Mandarin to stall for time. He rapidly discovers that this isn't working as well as he'd hoped after he calls Detective McAllister a whore, only for Detective Stuart (who was previously established as growing up in Hong Kong) to chide him for his attitude in the same language.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: When a man turns out to to be living in what's left of the Hotakainen's destroyed village, Sigrun starts speculating about the reasons the man would have to live in such a place out loud, feeling comfortable doing so within earshot of him due to speaking only Norwegian and currently being in Finland. The man helpfully explains the reason of his presence in Norwegian.
  • A variant in Dumbing of Age: Following a childhood incident, Marcie can't speak. The always-outspoken Malaya assumes that, since Marcie uses sign language, she must be deaf, and therefore is even less tactful than normal in talking about her.
  • That Deaf Guy:
    • In strip #347, Cedric is at a doctor's office and Desmond brought an interpreter so the Doctor could understand him (because he's Deaf and doesn't speak English). When the interpreter tells the doctor that Desmond gave permission for the shot, Cedric interrupts and claims the interpreter got the signs wrong and he doesn't need the shot. The doctor and interpreter look worried, but Desmond knows Cedric is trying to lie (in English) about the ASL conversation, as Desmond can read lips.
    • In strip #398, the (Deaf) family is eating out at a restaurant and signing together. The first panel has people commenting about them, then the other panel has Helen turn to say that she can hear.
  • In Yokoka's Quest, while Azha is having a conversation with Yokoka in Forest language, he reverts to Moon language to say to Misha, "This will be a real pain in the butt". Yokoka immediately replies in Moon language, "What's a pain in the butt?", to Azha and Misha's surprise (and to Yokoka's confusion, as it's possibly the first time she's heard or spoke it since losing her memories).
  • A variation when Regina is trying to think up a plan to kill Dan... Only to discover he's learned telepathy. Her new plan: "Piddle self. Run."

    Web Original 

    Web Videos 
  • Subverted on Elevator: Harold doesn't know Spanish, but he does know how to say "Hey! I know what you're saying" in twenty languages.
  • In The Guild, when Kwan the Korean programmer insults his opposing team in Korean, and Vork, leader a language that is barely recognizable as Korean.
  • Hilariously combined with Medium Awareness in the TGWTG Year One Brawl. Benzaie arrives, seemingly to help the Critic and the other TGWTG members, to fight against The Angry Video Game Nerd. But instead of helping them, he attacks both Linkara and the NC, then declares his reasons for supporting the Nerd in French. While the Critic appears confused at first, he angrily responds that he could read the subtitles.
    Critic: Fortunately I can read your subtitles, you back-stabbing snail eater! I hate you!
  • This Cracked video involving the writer's room of Game of Thrones spoofs the show's famous "I speak Valyrian" example; the head writer is protesting that his co-writers keep pitching ideas to horribly murder Joffrey that completely violate both the continuity of the books and basic storytelling logic. Another writer insults his mother in Valyrian, making the others all laugh... until the head writer, unamused, points out that he speaks Valyrian because of course he does, it's a made-up language that they all made up together. The second writer is suitably apologetic and embarrassed.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • Bart and Lisa try to have a private conversation in Pig Latin. Marge mentions that she was using it since before they were born.
      Bart and Lisa: ...Ap-cray.
    • In another episode, a group of Chinese government officials were discussing in their native tongue whether Homer's supposed knowledge of nuclear power would be worth the expenses of all the food he would eat. Homer interrupts them, proclaiming that "[he] understand[s] food talk in any language."
  • Used in the Justice League episode "Maid of Honor":
    Kasnian Soldier: [You can't understand what I'm saying and I wouldn't tell you anything if you could.]
    Batman: [I can... and you will.]
  • This is also played with in Stroker and Hoop, where Columbian drug lords force Double Wide to take them to Stroker and Hoop, who are hiding in The Deep South. On the way there, they talk in Spanish about how they'll kill him before moving onto Stroker and Hoop. Double Wide nervously says he wishes he didn't speak Spanish (in Spanish, no less).
  • Playing on a similar scene from the film Rush Hour, the first episode of Jackie Chan Adventures has newcomer Jade not speaking English at first, but later it turns out she knows perfect English to the surprise of Jackie.
  • Happens once in American Dragon: Jake Long between Jake's father Johnathan and Lao Shi. Lao Shi gets angry and began to shout at him in Chinese. Johnathan, attempting to show that he can also pull off Insulting from Behind the Language Barrier, began insulting Lao Shi's mother in Norwegian. Turns out Lao Shi also studied Norwegian.
  • In Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess, Wormwood the raven accidentally reveals the location of a counterspell book Sofia was looking for, unaware that she was recently granted the ability to understand and speak to animals.
  • In The Proud Family, Papi constantly insults Suga Mama in Spanish, with her unaware of what he's actually saying and mistakes it for flirting. In The Movie, due to a Spanish peanut being used in the process, Suga Mama's clone is able to understand Spanish and doesn't take kindly to Papi's insults. Ironically, Papi finds this new behavior attractive.

    Real Life 
  • There's an anecdote about Haim Saban that goes as such: During the '80s, Saban was attempting to buy KISS Licensing rights, and was meeting with Gene Simmons with Avi Arad at his side. At a certain point in the meeting, Saban turns to Arad and says, in Hebrew, "Now we will gut him." Simmons responded by saying "You asshole, I'm one of you" in Hebrew and walking out of the meeting; his birth name is Chaim Witz, and he was born near Haifa in northern Israel.
  • One story on the website "Overheard Everywhere" has an airport worker in Cologne refer to a pair of female Americans as sluts to one of his fellows — in German, of course.
    American guy: Could you stamp my passport, please? It's a hobby of mine.
    Passport checker: [to coworker, in German] These damn Americans always want something. Look, they've all got booze and bags and T-shirts. Now they want stamps.
    American girl: Sir, I'd like mine stamped, too.
    Passport checker: [in German] I bet that girl was here to fuck guys. American girls become sluts in Europe.
    American girl: Sir, that's not very nice!
    Passport checker: [still in German] I hate it when they know German. Then we can't talk about them!
In short, if you assume someone visiting your country doesn't speak your language and you badmouth them, any consequences that arise are your own fault.
  • A woman reported a burglary to the police. Partway in she got a phone call from her father and explained to him, in French, about how she and her boyfriend had set up the fake burglary plot. The investigating officer spoke seven languages, including French. What makes her actions even dumber is that this happened in Canada where even in an English-speaking province one should expect many people, especially police officers, to have some understanding of French. After all, it is the country's second official language.
  • This happens often in bilingual regions of the US — California, Texas, the Southwest, etc. In Florida, one particularly foolish criminal used his One Phone Call to call his accomplices and tell them, in Haitian Creole, to dispose of the gun they had used. Sure enough, one of the detectives happened to be Haitian-American and understood everything he said. Much like the first example, his assuming that no one would understand him is especially stupid, as this took place in a predominantly Haitian community.
  • In one anecdote on FML, the poster is a Swede in a non-Swedish community and tends to bad-mouth people in Swedish. When at a restaurant, they say a girl in the next booth is ugly. She turns around and tells them to "Go to hell" in Swedish.
    • In another anecdote, a lady was with her grandmother in a line as a black man talked loudly on his cell phone ahead of them. The grandma complained, in Chinese (her only language), that "the black man's really loud and annoying". After he hung up, he turned to the two and said, in perfect Chinese, "What's wrong with loud black men?"
  • Josef Stalin used a translator when talking with Churchill and Roosevelt. Stalin never let on to them that he knew English.
  • When George Takei was a teenager, he earned some extra cash as a seasonal worker among mostly Mexican-Americans. The overseers were Japanese-Americans and one day he overheard them talking in Japanese about how they were going to cheat the workers out of some of their rightful pay. Cue young George telling them in the same language that if they did, he'd report them. They caved.
  • In the end of the 19th century, a French banker visited a Russian factory he owned. There, he saw one man working with a wheelbarrow loaded with material for a blast furnace. He said (in French) "This monkey is working well". However, the worker was actually a nobleman who ran from his house, and knew French perfectly.note  So, he turned the wheelbarrow at him, and drove him halfway across the yard. When the banker had to climb an ore heap, the man stopped and said (in French!) "Sorry, the flooring here is too rough to control the wheelbarrow". The flooring was replaced.
  • Happened during a football game at Gallaudet University. The opposing team, Norfolk State, talked openly about their strategies, assuming that the deaf Gallaudet team couldn't hear. Norfolk never guessed that they were great at reading lips, and were promptly slaughtered in the game.
  • According to Nyle Dimarco in his Deaf Utopia memoir, that's how he knew right away that he was accepted into America's Next Top Model's 22th Cycle. By the time he finished his audition pitch, the CW executive said under his breath to Tyra Banks that "I'm Sold." But because ASL interpreters aren't supposed to filter out information (like swear words or whispering), the interpreter there told Nyle what the CW Executive said.
  • During a chess match against a deaf team, some of the deaf players were using sign language to talk about their ongoing games, which is forbidden. Unfortunately, someone in the opposite team was responsible in his company for the troubles of deaf people and knew sign language (actually, he knows three sign languages, due to some employees also being foreign).
  • Inverted by Margaret Cho. She was promoting her short-lived sitcom All-American Girl (1994), about a Korean-American family, on a morning news show for a local TV station that was being bought out by Disney. The host asked her to tell the viewers at home "in [her] native language" that they're changing over to an ABC affiliate. But since she was born and raised in California and is not actually fluent in Korean, she looked at the camera and curtly said in plain English, "They're changing over to an ABC affiliate."
  • English speakers are more likely to be the victim of this than speakers of other languages, since in most parts of the world there is a pretty good chance that the people around you will have at least some understanding of English. That said, it is pretty common knowledge that this is the case, so any English speakers who are humiliated in this way have only themselves to blame. On the other hand, many people freely assume that every English-speaker is bad at languages, so an Anglophone who does speak the language is often able to inflict this trope upon the locals.
  • This trope is becoming increasingly common in the USA with Spanish speakers as the percentage of the USA's population that knows Spanish increases.
  • A Korean-American grocer tells her husband something negative about an African-American customer, with the addendum "he can't possibly know what we are talking about." The customer tells her, in fluent Korean, that he served in the Army in Korea in 1952.
  • Disney encourages its cast members to become bilingual, in order to interact more smoothly with the guests. Unfortunately, the guests don't always realize that, and can be very, very abusive toward cast members they don't think can understand. There was one well-known incident where a cook making sandwiches to order listened very patiently as three French guests badmouthed the hotel they were staying in, the food the cook was making for them, and the cook himself while he made their meal. When he handed the sandwiches over, he said something along the lines of "I'm sorry your visit has been so difficult. If there is anything we can do to make it better, let us know." in flawless French. The guests left and apparently never returned to that restaurant for the rest of their stay.
  • A very weird variation is the bilingual version of O Canada, ostensibly to please both French- and English-speaking Canadians. It might have worked if one stanza was in one language and one in the other. Unfortunately, the switch occurs mid-stanza, making part of the song sheer gibberish for those that only speak either English or French (it's common for crowds in Western Canada to sing the English part, and go silent at the French, due to most of them not speaking that language). The Bilingual Backfire? Those that speak both languages know that this mashup of the two versions makes no sense whatsoever, as the meanings of the two versions are very different.
    • This also applies to the current South African national anthem. This switches between four official languages in the course of the song. The second half of the anthem is a heavily rewritten and truncated version of the pre-1994 anthem, with the first verse in Afrikaans and the second in English. It is particularly noticeable at rugby internationals especially, a nearly 100% white crowd will dutifully sing the first half of the anthem - in Zulu and Xhosa - in a polite and respectful sort of way. But the volume really increases to a triumphant roar when it moves to Afrikaans. The English lyrics are expressly not a translation of the second verse of the pre-1994 anthem. (This is contentious with some black people as it celebrates colonialism). Any Afrikaans-speaker who ignores the English and goes straight to what they instinctively know is the proper verse, the one about conquering an empty land to raise our flag there, is risking censure or worse from black South Africans who damn well know what that bit of Afrikaans means.
  • Parents in Israel — or, for that matter, any non-Anglophone country — often switch to English so their kid won’t understand when they talk about him. It can get awkward if the kid already knows more English than they think or has an English-speaking friend over; parents are often aware of the new limitation, but might slip up.
  • Welsh regiments of the British Army often used Welsh in their communications, thinking that the obscurity of the language would keep it secure. This generally worked, but apparently backfired on the guardsmen on some occasions during World War II as Welsh was surprisingly widely studied in Nazi circles, since it was considered an example of early Aryan languages.note . Later during the Falklands War, the British Army decided against using Welsh in their communications to prevent this trope from occurring not because Argentina Is Nazi Land, but because Argentina has a sizable and well-established Welsh-speaking community in Patagonia who could probably have exploited this trope. (Indeed, the Chubut Province of Argentina is the only region outside Wales with a significant and self-sustaining community of Welsh speakers.) Welsh soldiers serving in Northern Ireland also had to be reminded that the two major local universities, as well as the principal ones in the Republic, all had Celtic Studies departments where Welsh was taught to students. Therefore the chances of there being Republicans listening in to radio comms and being able to understand every word was very high indeed.
  • When someone who speaks a less spoken language visits another country they're often quick to assume that nobody understands a word they're saying, completely forgetting that they're not the only ones who travel or that people move to different countries. Chances are that someone is wondering what the better option is: Reveal to them that they are understood or continue having fun. The owner of the weblog Roachware occasionally tells friends an episode when he (a German) went to Belgium to a town on the Flemish/Walloon language divide and looked for a specific address. He asked a passer-by, in Flemish (which is close enough to Dutch for him to speak fluently), only to receive a "Comprend pas" (I don't understand). As he was German, he probably surprised the other person enough that, when he then switched to French "Pouvez-vous me dire...", he was interrupted by clear directions. He didn't even say the name of the street in French — which, due to Flemish/Walloon idiosyncrasies note  was quite different from the Flemish name....
  • Thanks to Auto-translate features, this can easily happen with social media posts made in another languages (although in general it is pretty stupid to post something on the internet you don't want other people to read, no matter the language).
  • This happened on a regular basis at the Canadian Military College at St-Jean-sur-Richelieu when sports teams from French colleges elsewhere in Québec competed against them and first-time players would hear cadet athletes, coaches, or spectators conversing in English, especially those with the distinctive Newfoundland accent and would start saying something insulting in French. They tended to learn very quickly that everyone who went there, if they weren't already, was required to become at least functionally bilingual.
  • The Irish army, when trying to avoid being overheard in Lebanon in the '80s, spoke in Irish (e.g. when radio communications, etc), reasoning that no one outside Ireland spoke the language. However, they eventually discovered that some of Israelis had learned Irish.note  Given that even most Irish people don't speak Irish fluently, the speech is slow and deliberate, making the translation an easy job. They switched to speaking English with very thick Irish accents, much harder for non-Irish people to understand!
  • A number of offenders who rudely dictate to foreigners about speaking the local language have had the tables turned on them:
    • In Wales, a Muslim woman in a phone conversation on a bus was angrily told to speak English. It turned out she was speaking fluent Welsh.
    • Urban legend tells of a similar incident in the US Southwest, where the object of abuse was speaking Navajo.
  • Particularly unthinking airline passengers flying Turkish airlines from Germany to Turkey and talking smack about the (ostensibly German) ground crew are often in for a rude awakening, given that Turkish is the second most common native language other than German in Germany.
  • Gay men in the UK used to have a dialect named Polari that was scarcely known outside the community, was filled with non-English words and structures from various sources, and was therefore quite useful for Cryptic Conversation at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Many of the words were similar to Italian (possibly having come from Mediterranean sailors by way of dockworkers' cant), so a story tells of two English gay men chatting away in Polari while in Italy and then being mortified to discover that everyone understood what they were saying.
  • According to Mark Subotnick, a producer at Sega of America at the time, the prospective Sega Dreamcast launch title Geist Force was killed by one of these. Late in development, Yuji Naka visited the game's American development studio with Sonic Team, checking out the tools and proprietary engine, and then started openly talking about plans to both swipe some of the technology for Sonic Adventure and poach one engineer who knew the system for Sonic Team, assuming no one in the American team knew Japanese. Unfortunately for him, many of the American developers were fluent in Japanese and understood everything he said, which led to the project's five lead engineers resigning from the project and ultimately resulted in Geist Force being canceled for lack of manpower to finish it.


Video Example(s):


Jonathan Insults Lao Shi

While on a road trip to Key West Florida, Jonathan and Lao Shi get into a argument after the former gets fed up with Lao Shi's navigating. He gets so fed up in fact that he insults Lao Shi's mother in Norwegian by saying that his mother smells like a pig with stomach sickness. Unfortunately for him however Lao Shi also studied Norwegian which results in the two getting into a brawl while in the car.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / BilingualBackfire

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